Tips & Tools for Network Instigators: The VOICE Heuristic

This blog will outline The VOICE Heuristic, another tool from Michelle Shumate and Katherine R. Cooper’s book, Networks for Social Impact. The VOICE Heuristic is a helpful way for network instigators to manage ongoing conflict within a nonprofit network.

What is the purpose of The VOICE Heuristic?

The VOICE Heuristic provides a backup plan for times when conflict management fails to rectify a conflict between disagreeing parties in a nonprofit network. In essence, the VOICE Heuristic reframes network participant thinking and attempts to bridge the gap between the nonprofit network and the benefiting community. This tool was proposed by communication researchers Jessica MacDonald Milan and Renee Heath.

Why is The VOICE Heuristic important? 

Conflict within nonprofit networks can be unexpected and jarring. Network instigators may be caught off guard by conflict and find themselves unequipped to resolve the issue. In such instances, the conflict may force the network to stall work and subsequently all social impact until the involved parties reach an agreement. The VOICE Heuristic prepares network instigators for conflict, hopefully ensuring that conflicts minimally impact the productivity of the network.

What does The VOICE Heuristic look like?

Milan and Heath use the acronym “VOICE” to identify key questions that encourage the elaboration and debating of ideas. This acronym provides a healthy atmosphere for disagreeing parties to contest with each other in a meaningful way. True to its name, the VOICE Heuristic is intended to structure discussions through voice instead of expression.

Outlined below are questions, guided by the VOICE acronym, to help network leaders make decisions in times when disagreeing stakeholders are unable to manage their respective conflicts.

Adapted from Jessica MacDonald Milam and Renee Guarriello Heath, “Participative Democracy and Voice: Rethinking Community Collaboration beyond Neutral Structures,” Journal of Applied Communication Research 42, no. 4 (October 2, 2014): 366-86,

 As the infographic depicts, “VOICE” is an acronym that guides productive discussion. Each letter represents a sub-basis for questions that should be addressed by parties in conflict. While not necessarily easy to discuss, this heuristic provides a guideline that encourages meaningful and focused discussion rather than disagreement and challenge.

The VOICE Heuristic can be a helpful tool for a nonprofit instigator to have because it provides a structured way for these instigators to manage network disagreements. Furthermore, it attempts to manage these disagreements in a way that is considerate of the opinions of all parties involved. Through this tool, what might be an ongoing, time-consuming, and divisive issue can be corrected swiftly, and the important work of the network can continue in a forward motion.